And all of them really.
And all of them really.
In Norse mythology, there is a story of a supernatural wolf called Fenrir. He is the god Loki’s son and, at first, he lives with the gods. But he becomes worryingly large and powerful and they decide to bind him. After he breaks free from a series of increasingly robust physical chains, the gods control him by binding him with Gleipnir, a magic fetter of paradoxes: the breath of a fish, the beard of a woman, the sound of a cat walking. These dreamlike, impossible ideas seem analogous to me to the intangible laws, rules, and political boundaries that determine where wolves exist today. I’ve always wondered why the gods didn’t just kill the threatening Fenrir, why they preferred a bound wolf to a dead wolf. Today, using GPS collars and tranquilizer darts and ‘wolf plans’ as our fetter, we seem to have made the same choice.
I wanted to learn more about the snake and, in particular, about its relationship with humans. I found a paper by two Dutch scholars, Rob Lenders and Ingo Janssen, which argued that the reason Natrix natrix is so common in Europe is that snakes of this species like to lay their eggs in warm cow pies and other livestock manure. They thus followed Neolithic humans and their domesticated animals up the continent, into colder climes than any other egg-laying snake, and became culturally associated with livestock, even thought of as their protectors. They were ‘considered to be chthonic deities’ – gods of the underworld ‘not to be harmed,’ the researchers wrote. Every spring, they emerged from their underground hibernacula before the snow had melted and were thus seen as ‘heralds of spring.’ Their unblinking eyes, the researchers wrote, ‘made them to our forebears all-seeing creatures and therefore very wise.’ The snakes also symbolized death and, as they shed their skins, rebirth. In the Baltic countries, grass snakes were sometimes considered to be the spirits of dead ancestors, ‘taking care of their descendants by protecting valuable cattle and by stimulating fertility.’ And Lithuanians and Latvians did indeed let grass snakes live in their houses, near the hearth, to keep warm, and sometimes fed them. Their worship goes back to Indo-European times.
The researchers speculate that the ring around the neck of the grass snake, which goes almost, but not quite, all the way around, may have inspired the common European Iron Age accessory known as the torc (or torque), a metal neck ring with a gap in the front. They point to the fact that many torcs were decorated with snake motifs, and they mention the Gundestrup cauldron – a huge silver bowl from sometimes between 150-1 BCE found in a Danish peat bog. It is covered with figures and scenes wrought in silver, including the antlered god Cernunnos. He wears a torc and holds another in his right hand. In his left, he holds a grass snake. Around him are animals: deer, something canine, something feline, and a small person riding on the back of a dolphin.
I gazed at pictures of the cauldron, feeling like I was looking at scenes from a European dreamtime, when animal people and human people spoke to one another, when animal gods and animals themselves were worshiped, when humans knew themselves to be simply one kind of animal among many. A pre-Christian world before the human/nature duality.
Christianization more or less disrupted the worship of grass snakes, and they became despised – like all snakes – as symbols of the evil serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. But in some corners of Europe, respect for this species persists. A Romanian naturalists writes that in Eastern Romania, ‘No one kills this snake because it is considered as a protector of the house, a help against mice and insects.’ In the Netherlands, volunteers now construct ‘broeihopen’ for their local Natrix species to nest in: piles of loose compost that hold the heat to keep the eggs warm. We did not tame these animals and we do not routinely keep them captive, and yet our lives have been entangled with theirs for thousands of years.
Lévy-Bruhl helps us to understand why statues and figurines were treated in this way, without resorting to a notion of irrationality defined (in our Western manner) by a failure to draw the proper dividing line between animate and inanimate objects. In Greece in particular, matter itself could have an ambiguous status. To give a specific example, or some highly educated thinkers such as the late seventh/early sixth-century BCE philosopher Thales of Miletus, stones that had magnetic properties were thought to contain souls…It is not hard to see how magnetic stones that attracted to iron fillings, in the absence of an available electromagnetic theory, could be thought to be animate – in other words to contain a soul. Reality as we know it in the mechanical, casual Western view, with its sharp dividing line between organic and inorganic matter, is collapsed in Thales’ view of the magnet…”
“Greeks harbored many different beliefs about dead souls, and scaled them in different ways, from heroes who rested at their leisure in the Elysium fields and the Isles of the Blessed, to an altogether different sort of underworld community whose anger was beyond human appeasement.”
“The shocking and bizarre nature of an epileptic seizure, as every Greek who knew Herakles’ own sufferings could attest, was so extraordinary that it almost begged for divine explanation. But to the Greeks, the fact that a divinity could invade a human body was a familiar experience, most famously illustrated in the case of the Pythia at Delphi being invaded by Apollo who thereby provided her with an oracular voice. In this case Apollo’s divine visitation was invited and controlled and unlike a sudden epileptic seizure, where it was not even clear which divinity might in fact be present…. The Greeks construed an epileptic seizure in terms of divine invasion, and in anthropological terms this kind of cultural phenomenon is called possession. The issue now for the patient, however, according to the author of On the Sacred Disease, was to determine which divinity was responsible for the possession.”
Harry and company don’t steal Fluffy from Hogwarts, nor did they bring him there. Hagrid did, after he bought him from a “Greek chappie” under less-than-legal circumstances (*cough* animal trafficking *cough*). This is a far cry from the violent episode you’re probably imaging with Heracles literally dragging Cerberus out of the Underworld. But Timothy Gantz points out in his 1993 book Early Greek Myththat the iconography of this episode, and its development, depicts a shift in attitude about Heracles’ involvement in this labor. Early vases show him violently storming the Underworld to steal Cerberus; later ones show a more gentle encounter with Persephone allowing Heracles to borrow Cerberus. So while Heracles doesn’t necessarily steal Cerberus every time this episode is recounted, he does participate in the movement of an exotic animal across borders — with no real intention of returning him.
But we shouldn’t pillory Heracles as a proto-animal trafficker. Animal trafficking as we know it, the illicit trade for everything from bushmeat to elephant tusks to illegal house pets, just didn’t exist in the ancient world. What did exist in Antiquity was animal hunting, specifically exotic animal hunting. Think crocodiles from Egypt, panthers from Greece, and elephants from north Africa. Big game from conquered locales played a huge role in the Roman Empire, marching alongside war captives during the imperial triumph. Our earliest account of foreign animals’ participation in processions comes from Josephus’s description of Vespasian’s and Titus’ triumph where “beasts of many species were led along, all decked out with the appropriate adornments” (7.136). Exotic animals, dressed up and subjugated like their human counterparts, were paraded through the streets as prisoners, then later slaughtered in the amphitheater during the ludi, or games. The more fantastic the beast, the better.
So while these fantastic beasts weren’t trafficked, they were displayed as symbols of Rome’s power. And that’s what Cerberus/Fluffy does for his conqueror. Like the emperors Titus and Vespasian, in capturing and later displaying Cerberus to Eurystheus, Heracles didn’t display the might and prowess of the hellhound but his own. Similarly Rowling displays her own literary and cultural prowess when she places Fluffy at the trapdoor leading to the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here, she takes a prominent, seminal image from Western literature and adapts it for her own purposes. And she does so in a pretty clever way by placing Fluffy at the beginning of Harry’s katabasis (a descent into the Underworld) and associating him with heroes like Orpheus, Heracles, and Aeneas.
But who owns Fluffy? The ancient Greeks are no longer alive, and their stories no longer hold any real religious weight. You could point fingers at Rome, but Rome “appropriated” Greek culture long ago (part of a larger drive in Roman society to assimilate conquered cultures). Greek mythology now resides in the foundations of Western literature and art: you can plagiarize its particular iterations but not its general ideas. This is why Greece can argue for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles but not, say, the dismantling of Washington, D.C. And yes, on Cerberus you could argue that Vergil cribbed Homer, and Dante Vergil, but whoever came up with Cerberus first is long gone — and he’s ripe for the taking.